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George Freideric Händel, composer


(Compiled February 2001)

George Freideric Händel was born February 23, 1685 in Halle, Saxony. Halle was mostly an industrial town near Leipzig known for its mining. Handel's name was anglicized when he moved to England.

Handel's father, also named George, was 62 when his son was born and was employed as the court barber-surgeon. His mother, Dorothea Taust, was the daughter of a pastor and George's second wife. The family lived in what was once a tavern and George Senior made extra money by selling liquor to passing travelers. His father had his mind set on George Junior becoming a lawyer, and therefore he did not receive any early training in music. His mother, however, (or aunt depending upon which story you believe) smuggled a clavichord into the attic where young Handel would practice while the household slept. One day, when he accompanied his father to the palace, he wandered into the chapel and began playing the organ. The duke was impressed enough with what he heard that he requested his father to let him have music lessons. He did so with Wilhelm Zachau, a local organist who taught Handel not only the organ but also the harpsichord, violin, oboe and basic composition. Zachau eventually kept Handel very busy requiring him to compose a new cantata for the church every week.

By age eleven, Handel was allowed to travel to Berlin to study. At one concert he gave in Berlin the Elector of Brandenburg and his wife Sophia Charlotte were present. They were so impressed by his talent that they made an offer to his father to send young George to Italy to study. Unfortunately, on account of his father's ill health, he was called home to study law instead.

Handel's father died in 1697, but seventeen year old Handel intended to continue his law studies. In 1702, Handel took a job as the organist at the Domkirche in Halle. After a year Handel sought out new challenges and moved to Hamburg to pursue opera composition, although he earned his living by playing second violin in the opera orchestra. Handel befriended the composer Johann Mattheson but at one performance of Mattheson's opera the two got into a fight over who was to play the harpsichord. They went outside for a duel that thankfully was terminated quickly when Matteson's sword broke on contacting a button on Handel's coat. Despite these events the two remained friends.

At the time the chief opera composer in Hamburg was Reinhard Keiser. In 1705 when Keiser lost interest in the composition of the opera Almira, Handel took over and his work was met with considerable success.

In 1706 Handel went to Italy where he met Corelli and the Scarlatti's. His time there helped him to polish his composition skills and establish a good reputation for himself as an Opera composer. He also heard the Italian shepherds play their bagpipes, a sound that is incorporated into the pastoral interlude in part 1 of Messiah.

Handel returned to Germany in 1711 to become Kappelmeister for the Elector of Hanover, however he almost immediately took a leave of absence to visit England to stage a number of his operas. He enjoyed success there and only returned to Hanover in order to convince his boss to allow him to return to England on condition that he "return in a reasonable time." Handel died in England almost 50 years later having never returned to Germany. In 1714, The Elector of Hanover was named King George I of England.

Queen Anne bestowed a pension of 200 pounds a year on Handel and when George I became king the amount was raised to 600 pounds. In 1726, Handel became a British subject. For the coronation of George II, Handel composed Zadok the Priest, which is still performed to this day at British coronations.

Despite early success as an opera composer, Handel found greater competition and less success as time went on. Italian opera was going out of fashion in favor of melodramatic operas such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Handel turned to writing oratorios, first Esther then Deborah and Saul and Israel in Egypt. In 1737,he suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his right arm and impaired his thinking.

In 1741, down on his luck, Handel accepted an invitation from the lord lieutenant of Dublin to visit that city, which he accepted. He brought with him the score of Messiah that he had composed in less than three weeks. Messiah successfully premiered in Dublin in 1742. However, on his return to England the work did not to meet with such success until a few years later. His Samson was very warmly greeted though, and sustained Handel's reputation.

At the king's request, Handel reluctantly composed the Royal Fireworks Music (1749). The rehearsal drew a crowd of 12,000 and stopped London traffic for three hours. The first performance was marred by problems with the fireworks, but the music was a huge success.

For the last seven years of his life Handel was blind, but continued to conduct his oratorios. Although bankrupted twice during his life, Handel died a wealthy man on April 14, 1759. He is buried in Westminster Abbey and was commemorated with a monument by Louis Francois Roubillac.



Getting A Handel on Messiah - David Barber, Sound and Vision, Toronto.



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